Senate debates

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Asylum Seekers, Department of Immigration and Border Protection

3:06 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection (Senator Cash) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today relating to the Government's border protection policies.

What a difference 2½ months make. Before the election we heard those who were in opposition at the time talk about the public's right to know. As recently as February this year Senator Cash was recorded on the Senate Hansard as saying:

… senators have a fundamental, constitutional right which they are entitled to exercise, and that is to ask questions … and to be given those answers in a timely fashion.

Of course, we never heard any talk from the opposition before the election about people discussing these issues of refugees and the irregular arrivals. We never heard any talk then about the need to shut down the public debate. We never heard any talk whatsoever about the suggestion that talking about these issues and the public's right to know were acts of aiding people smugglers. But that is what we hear from this government.

Today we hear yet another example of the new government's contempt for this parliament and this chamber. Senator Cash frankly was not able to answer questions. Even her supplementary answers after question time did not actually go to the questions. They did not seek to do it. They were just a whole lot of blather about operational matters. When it comes to the question of job losses, we know that the directive has been sent to the department that all people on existing contracts for non-ongoing employment arrangements cease at the end of the current term. That is an instruction that has been issued to every agency within the Commonwealth and, of course, every department within the Commonwealth. We know that in the case of immigration there are a thousand people tied up with those sorts of employment arrangements. If you want to change them and move outside that directive, you actually have to go as far as the Australian Public Service Commissioner to get approval. She does not mention that in her answer.

She is disgracefully ignorant of her portfolio, frankly. She has had plenty of time to get on top of it, but she is not able to answer the questions that are put to her here today. She seeks to hide behind several simple devices—contemptuous devices. 'Oh, I'm not going to talk about operational matters. I'm not even going to tell you about health checks or security checks being performed. I'm not able to tell you, in fact, about the capacity of our detention system.' Simple staffing matters are, of course, a matter that eludes her. I would have thought any minister would know the consequences of a government direction to cease contracts of employment within her department. And she then tries to present to us the suggestion that any discussion of this matter is a device by which we are giving aid and comfort to people smugglers. The hypocrisy is breathtaking given the amount of energy you have spent on these questions in recent years.

We heard the Prime Minister echo these views. Just the other night on 7.30 he suggested: 'We're not answering questions which are for entertainment purposes. We're not going to allow for media purposes. We're not going to be able to provide any advice to the public on these questions,' because presumably there is some moral imperative here for people to remain in ignorance. That is essentially what is being said. Before the election the Prime Minister, as he is now—he was the Leader of the Opposition then—said, 'The last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people.' We know the truth in that regard now, don't we? This is not the government people elected. They are hiding behind this presumption that, if the question is not asked on a Friday, you do not get an answer. There is a presumption that you have to go to Sydney to some briefing provided by a general; and, if you cannot, you do not get told what is going on within this country. Hiding behind operational matters is a disgrace. It is the last refuge of a scoundrel to suggest that we are not entitled to know about 19 Somali refugees who turned up in Darwin Harbour on Monday night. We are not to know about that. You can tie up a boat at the wharf at Darwin Harbour, and we are not allowed to know about it. We are not allowed to have that sort of discussion.

We simply cannot reconcile the claims that the government is now making with the actions that they presented to the Australian people prior to the election. We know what has changed here: the government is now running a protection racket to save Mr Abbott the embarrassment of having to front up to the consequence of trying to suggest to the Australian people that complex problems can be solved by three-word slogans. The cost of it is clear. (Time expired)


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